THERE MAY BE NOTHING MORE revealing about a culture than the harebrained schemes and failed gewgaws of its people, most of which will one day turn up in your local 88, 97, or 98 Cent store. Generally speaking, such places are dark and orderless, with stock that changes every day. The most arcane are located in Koreatown, where a recent trip yielded Funky Supreme dishwashing detergent, which was sandwiched between tamale husks and a Chinese Hula Hoop with scalloped edges to massage the organs as one twists. But in the hierarchy of dollar stores, or deep, deep discounters, or "extreme-value retailers," as they are referred to on Wall Street, the 99 Cents Only chain is the Cadillac.
The 99 Cents Only stores, of which there are currently 112 in California, Nevada, and Arizona, with ten more due by the end of the year, are supermarket sized and stupefyingly bright. They have a deli section with Oscar Mayer sliced ham and Sugardale bologna and Mrs. Paul's fish sticks and Pillsbury muffins and Jell-O pudding. They sell merlot and mousetraps, Gruyere cheese and power-steering fluid, Queen Amidala underwear and multivitamins. There are cookie aisles, pet food aisles, cosmetics aisles, and baby aisles with five different baby bottles, four types of nipples, powders, rattles, diapers, and teethers. Some people buy their condoms there. All of these products are always displayed in thin, ankle-to-neck-high vertical bands of contrasting color that make the whole store hiss and vibrate if you shop there too long.
The closer we teeter to recession, the more people will shop at the 99 Cents Only stores. And the more the cash register chings, the greater grows Wall Street's love for Dave Gold, the former liquor store owner turned folk hero whose fantasy of opening a store in which everything costs 99 cents birthed a bargain behemoth that did half a billion dollars in sales last year, employs 5,000 people, has $125 million in cash, and carries absolutely no debt. Dan Wewer, senior retail analyst for Deutsche Banc, says NDN—the company's ticker since going public in 1996—"has the best unit growth potential in value retailing and possibly all of retailing."
As if Wall Street's imprimatur weren't enough, the art world has deemed Gold's trademark displays so noteworthy that the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently exhibited a mammoth photograph of a Sunset Boulevard store. Taken from a ladder overlooking the candy aisle, Andreas Gursky's photograph immortalizes the confetti-color overload of the 99 Cents Only stores for those who've never been in one. But for those of us who live here, it's Gold's window displays that have insinuated the stores into our consciousness. Had you driven by the Wilshire Boulevard store in early April, for instance, you would have noticed a glowing mass of 9 Lives cat food arranged in the style of Warhol's Campbell's soup. That is to say, six cat food boxes high by eight boxes wide, flanked by similar displays of Fiddle Faddle, Faultless spray starch, Reynolds Wrap, Armor All, Downy, Champion raisins, and Heinz catsup, all stretching off toward Beverly Hills. Had you driven north or south or east you would have noticed the exact same cat food displayed in the exact same fashion in the windows of the hundreds of 99 Cents Only's copycats that have cropped up in this town since Gold opened his first store 19 years ago.
That his displays have been imitated so many times that they're now synonymous with bargain closeouts the way striped poles used to connote haircuts doesn't bother Dave Gold in the least. "I don't think about it", he says. "The worst thing is when a person has too much time to think. You start feeling sorry for yourself."
This feature was originally published in the August 2001 issue of Los Angeles magazine